I haven’t blogged for a couple weeks because I’ve been in the middle of moving to America, to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’m taking up a post-doc at UVA. My wife Holly has v self-sacrificially come with me. I intend to write a series of letters from America, or letters from a flyer-over state. This is the first.


Landed. Slept. Woken. Wandered round. A University older than the country it’s in; colonial settlements tucked in amongst rolling hills; everything very verdant; sunken soccer pictures; UVA freshmen and freshwomen (aged 12? 13?) streaming across ‘cross-walks’; stand-alone wooden houses with side porches; many also with charming little Greek letters hanging above their lintels – to help classicists revise?

Now, to construct a new life for ourselves. Holly and I make a list. Cell phones. Bank accounts. Tennis courts. Levi’s store. Country club membership. Health insurance. The basics, in that order. We need to prioritize with a ‘zee’.

So first AT&T. Sales representative ‘Chucky’, 300lbs, greets us. We’re told to rest easy. We’re going to be taken care of today. So we perch on a cushioned bench, while Chucky slouches back Jabba-style.

And then something amazing happens. A quaint phenomenon kicks in, known in these parts as ‘customer service.’ ‘Customer service’ does not – as I first assume – designate the service which I as customer provide to the supplier of the goods in question. Au contraire. In a bizarre but welcome reversal ‘customer service’ designates the service the seller provides for me, the customer. All very disorientating: it’s as if he’s happy I’m there?

Chucky sets out the options, adumbrates various plans, recommends… until suddenly we’re interrupted. In through the entrance arrives an Italian baker, apparently AT&T’s next-door neighbor, holding a fresh baguette and a plate of butter. ‘Bread and butter’ he declares with a flourish, to minimize misapprehension.

Chucky lights up. ‘My man!’

… prompting a digression. Chucky is recently married and the snake of a woman who’s taken him on has dared to make adjustments to his diet. Bread has been removed from the supper table; sweet tea is hanging in the balance…

We’re ‘set’. And then words come out as foreign as some Arabic greeting: ‘Thank you for your custom’. We part, blood brothers.

Now for the bank. Again unnervingly, another sales rep. bounds up to us with, ‘Can I help?’ Well, actually, yes – you can. ‘I’d be pleased to’, he says. ‘I’m Chuck.’ Of course you are. This Chuck too has in his head the strange notion that he is there to aid us in some way, a disconcerting construal of the commercial scenario which I’m more than happy to entertain. Chuck lists options; makes choices easy; smiles; lets us dictate the pace. This is a wonderful country.

Next to the tennis courts; floodlit for free until 10pm; in immaculate condition. As Holly and I begin to rally I look across at the court next to me to find a coach feeding youngsters squidgy practice tennis balls. Yes! This will be my man. My coach. I hail him: ‘Hi Chuck!’ ‘When are you free?’ I’m upfront about my needs: a far better second service; achieving more depth with my slice backhand. He’s happy to see me, happy to oblige.

We now return to the little house we’re staying in until we get our own place. Our three female roommates – Chuck, Chuck and Chuck – are astonishingly gracious, giving up their space willingly, gladly, as if it gives them pleasure. Giving us ‘rides’ into ‘downtown’; having especially stockpiled victuals for us – Lucky Charms and whatnot; more than ready to answer our every question.

‘What do they want, these people?’ I think to myself, in desperate search of an ulterior motive, an angle, some sniff of a calculating move or underlying agenda. But I can find none of these things; only sincere generosity.

But more to come. I’m sure I’ll see through them soon.